Thursday, June 12, 2008

First Contact: Al Chop

When I first saw the 1956 United Artists documentary motion picture, "U.F.O." on TV in the mid-sixties, I could hardly believe my eyes. UFO history had been my interest as a teenager for a while, but I never even heard of this seemingly obscure film. Yet, it held a spellbinding attraction for me. Because much of it concerned the real life story of Pentagon spokesman and former U.S. Marine Albert M. Chop, who slowly transformed his hardened skepticism to overt acceptance of the UFO as a real phenomenon with apparent intelligence behind its identity, Chop had already served on the board of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), but resigned for reasons unknown. I wanted to ask him a few questions about the movie and NICAP resignation.

And find him I did, though it wasn't difficult because he was working for NASA in public relations at the time (see his photo), even calling the occasional space launch on national TV as "The voice of mission control."

Today, I'm posting the two earliest letters received from Al Chop in 1966. The first, on NASA letterhead, offers a basic explanation for his NICAP resignation and favorable comments about the movie. The second letter expresses further his disappointment and outrage about his leaving NICAP, and he has nothing positive to say about the writings of a particular figure who has been prominent in the UFO arena for years -- and noted as a long-time critic of NICAP.

Also posted today is Chop's 1953 letter to Donald Keyhoe's book publisher. I posted this letter a couple of times on my main UFO subject blog (see link in margin) and decided to resurrect it here as well because Chop, then on the Air Force Press Desk at the Pentagon, references it in one of his 1966 letters. My "book," which Chop mentions in a handwritten comment at the end, never materialized.

Years passed and I entered a four-year Air Force enlistment, but never dismissed the importance of the movie, "U.F.O." That's why, when eventually I was fortunate enough to write a few national magazine articles, I broached the idea of a movie update article to Official UFO (a very informative UFO-related newsstand magazine for its first few issues, until the publisher decided to turn it into a pathetic, lie-infested rag). The proposal was okayed and off I went, phoning and writing contacts in some 12 states and 17 cities.

The February, 1977 issue of Official UFO carried the lengthy results of in-depth research months later in my article, " 'UFO' Revisited," offering interviews with such movie participants as Al Chop himself, Tom Towers (the actor who played Chop), American Airlines pilot Willis T. "Doc" Sperry (experienced a dramatic UFO encounter), Maj. Dewey Fournet (original UFO project monitor for the government project) and producer Clarence Greene.

A few months later, using the London press book's synopsis of the movie and adding a few update details here and there -- in addition to some new visuals that did not appear in the Official UFO article -- Argosy UFO carried my second piece on Clarence Greene's feature-length motion picture in its Winter 1977-78 issue.

A third article, intended to complete a trilogy on the movie with focus primarily on lead actor Tom Towers, met disaster when I submitted it to Saga Magazine's UFO Report. Stuffed with rare visuals, some absolutely irreplaceable, the package was "lost in the mail" according to editors. I was devastated and gave up on the project at that point.

In 2005 I wrote an updated article on the movie for the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, and in January, 2006 the piece appeared in Volume 30, #2 of the International UFO Reporter.
In 2006, I pulled out the old unpublished article about Tom Towers, now long deceased (in 1995, the year confirmed recently thanks to researcher Barry Greenwood's note to me), in hope of at least memorializing this interesting man. Ultimately, it appeared in August, 2006, in Volume 30, #4 of the International UFO Reporter.

The movie, which used to appear sporadically on cable TV, was released on videotape in 2000 by MGM Home Video, but it was discontinued about three years later with no DVD ever issued.

Why should we care about "U.F.O." so much, and why does it represent more than just a movie? There are two enticing reasons. First, this 1956 documentary, now more than 50 years of age, is a brilliantly shining beacon that establishes and endorses the history of UFOs in the USA -- a time when the U.S. government seemed "this close" to telling the American people that UFOs are real, with intelligence behind their maneuvers, and perhaps of extraterrestrial origin. With several former government and military people "who lived the story of the UFO" behind this film's production, the efforts of every serious UFO researcher who ever dared to confront the UFO enigma are legitimized forever.

Second, "U.F.O." reflects American history, plain and simple. This documentary deserves a prominent spot in the Library of Congress because of its integrity and, not to be ignored, its implications. Based soberly upon the government concern once openly exhibited for a still very much unexplained phenomenon, this old movie has the potential one day to be the most important motion picture ever made. If the U.S. government ever discloses the same facts it was on the verge of revealing in the early fifties -- with even just the minimum of details -- "U.F.O." will be the ultimate silver screen reminder that our existence, our science and our very lives pale in comparison to things we can't even imagine.